Determined to Succeed at Any Cost: Eating Disorders in Division 1 Sports

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Savannah A. Ryder

BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! … It’s 5:30am and the alarm is going off. It’s Tuesday morning. My stomach does a flip when I realize what day it is. However, I’m not anxious about the dreaded morning weight circuit, like most of my teammates are, I’m anxious because it might be weigh in day. 

Content note: mentions of weight and descriptions of team weigh-ins

The coaches never tell us in advance, but whenever they do decide to weigh us, it’s always during circuit. 

As I climb out of bed and put on my gear, negative thoughts race through my mind. For a brief moment, the anxiety becomes so severe that I contemplate calling in sick to practice just in case it is the day we will be weighed. While the thought sounds good at first, I know I can’t do that. I’m a member of the team and I need to show that I’m committed to the team goals. If I don’t show up, I would be letting my teammates down.

So, I grab my keys and head out the door. After all, once the circuit is over I won’t have to worry about a possible weigh in for another week.

This scenario was a weekly occurrence for me during my years as a coxswain for a Division 1 rowing program. 

It was because of my determination and drive, the same two qualities that made me an amazing athlete, that I ended up putting myself at risk for developing life-threatening medical complications from an uncontrolled eating disorder. 

During my years on the team, my teammates and I were frequently encouraged to get our body fat percentage measured by the team nutritionist. These percentages were then analyzed by coaching staff, who oftentimes wanted us to work to lower it to an optimal level for peak performance. 

Whenever the rowers on my team did a piece on the erg (rowing machine), their most recent weight was used to create a “weight-adjusted” time that would help the coaches decide what boat to place them in. Both the times and weights were then emailed out to everyone in excel spreadsheets with a ranking number after almost every test piece. 

You see, weight was used by my coaches as a tool for success. To them, it was just another piece of the equation to getting a top 10 NCAA team. If this was how my coaches viewed weight, then why as their athlete would I have viewed it any differently?

In my position, there was a minimum weight requirement. Even though I knew I couldn’t healthily ever sit at the “minimum” weight for a coxswain, I still felt pressured by my own conscious to do so. If weighing the least amount allowed would make my boat go faster, it was worth it. To me it didn’t matter that I was harming my body. What mattered was success. Otherwise, I might as well have just given my spot to the girl who did get her weight down. After all, there were always plenty of eager coxswains looking to take my spot. 

While I know that my coaches at the time would have never wanted in any way for me to harm my body, I think there could have been precautions put in place to prevent not just my own disordered eating behaviors, but also those of some of my teammates. 

I think getting rid of weigh-ins would be a good start. While yes, weight can be a part of the equation for success, it certainly doesn’t have to be. There are many important determinants of athletic success other than body weight. My hope is that as eating disorder awareness continues to rise, more coaches will think twice before subjecting their athletes to a numbers game on the scale. 

For recovery resources and treatment options, please visit our help and support page. If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, call  ANAD’s Helpline at: (888) 375-7767 or the National Alliance of Eating Disorders Helpline at: (866) 662-1235.

If you are thinking about suicide, call or text the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988. In crisis situations, text “NEDA” to 741741 to be connected with a trained volunteer from the Crisis Text Line.

Learn more about eating disorders and athletes here.

Savannah Ryder holds a BBA in marketing and successfully completed four years as an NCAA Division 1 athlete on a women’s rowing team. Today, Savannah is a student at Columbia University in the City of New York in the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation.